A funny thing happened on our way to the royal wedding this weekend: We got waylaid by something else exciting on the other side of the pond. Namely, some of the most striking black-hair portraiture we’ve ever seen, courtesy of British photographer Luke Nugent and award-winning hairstylist Lisa Farrall.
But there’s a twist: Nugent and Farrall are both—gasp—white artists who consider working with black hair one of their specialties. And from the looks of their work, we’re inclined to agree. Naturally (pun intended), we wanted to know more, so we caught up with Nugent and Farrall to untangle an often difficult issue: Do only black people have the right to celebrate the beauty of black hair?
The Glow Up: Both of your bios state that “Afro hair and beauty” [as black hair is often called in the U.K.] is one of your specialties, though you’re not black yourselves. What is it about black beauty in particular that you find so inspiring?
Lisa Farrall: I’m not black, but I do find that with a platform, you have a responsibility to speak about issues that are close to your heart. I find everything about black culture beautiful, and I’ve been doing Afro hair for a very long time. I’ve never understood why you would choose not to do every hair type. You could say I’m a voice for beautiful women and men out there, and I’m trying to send a message of black beauty and power—and, most importantly, that black hair is beautiful.
Luke Nugent: I find everything about black beauty inspiring. Unlike a lot of what you see in commercial Western beauty, which is very focused on softness and submission and the importance of having Western attributes, black women in art represent a sort of statuesque strength and a sense of unapologetic sexuality that makes them so incredibly powerful.
I am under no illusion that I deserve more or even equal recognition as black artists creating black art. I have so much respect for the black creative community, and actually, since my interest in this field has bloomed, my eyes have been opened to so many incredible artists in the community creating Afrocentric art. It has been a real honor to even have my work admired at all, for which I am so humbled. The history of black art immensely surpasses that of Western art, with a legacy spanning almost the breadth of human existence. That is not something to be taken lightly.
TGU: You have several hair series. Can you tell us a bit about how they started and what the process is? How do you choose or create themes?
LF: It generally starts with a conversation that sparked interest for me or an experience I’ve seen or heard. I then do my research and put together a concept and a mood board. I’ll then share this with Luke, and we come together on the same vision. For me, my collections are slightly political, and I want you to think about the message. From the casting to the clothes to the hair concept, this is so important, and my collections are titled to reflect this. Luke really understands my vision, and together we really create magic. I want women to embrace their hair and feel powerful.
LN: It really does vary depending on the project. Usually it starts with a rough concept, but I like to work quite off-the-cuff; you can’t really create something exciting with overplanning, so I love just turning up on set with a few ideas in mind as to how I will interpret the brief. My main focus is always on form and shape; if I know the theme, I usually find I can work to create shapes which reflect what’s required to bring the project to life. For me, creating images is a very intuitive process.
TGU: Luke, you and Lisa Farrall are quite the team. Can you tell us how that relationship evolved and why it’s such a solid collaboration?
LN: Lisa and I met on set a few years ago and definitely hit it off as a team and have become close friends. It was a very natural evolution as a collaborative team, and I feel we understand our goals with each project; we know how to use our skills to complement each other’s work. We definitely speak the same language when it comes to constructing our ideas and the postproduction involved in our work together.
I think Lisa and I share similar values when it comes to empowering women. There is nothing more important in the current climate than giving people a positive way to channel their want for strong role models, which we do by creating images based within these fantasy scenarios. We have a lot of exciting new projects lined up for the coming months, which I can’t wait to publish.
TGU: Do you ever get any pushback or accusations of fetishizing because of your affinity for black hair? If so, what do you say to that?
LN: I have read the odd comment on posts where questions are raised on the integrity of my work [and] my intentions, or where people argue amongst themselves over the content of my work. However, if I’m honest, that’s usually stuff written by people with either misplaced good intentions or a lack of understanding of how important representation is. In all honesty, the majority of feedback is positive, and either way, I don’t really mind.
My work isn’t trying to be political, and if it has been taken to be so, then opening discussions about race can only be a good thing, if you ask me. Either way, I can take the heat; I don’t expect not [to] be asked difficult questions. However, I am not trying to make any particular statement. These images are out there for the audience to interpret as they wish.
LF: I think it’s insulting not to do every hair type and not [to] master every hair type. I’ve had tweets from people being baffled and shocked and distraught when they find out a white hairstylist has done these black hairstyles, but I take that in my stride. I find more [offense] to salons in every street you walk down not catering for every hair type—being turned away because we don’t do your hair? Hell no!!! I’ll push right back at that.
That’s why I launched Wig London: I’m changing the hairdressing industry with education at my academy; I want every hairstylist to do every hair type! Hair equality all the way for me.
TGU: What is the vision or message about black beauty you’re trying to communicate through your photographs?
LF: Be bold, be beautiful and be you! Don’t be told how to wear your hair, don’t be ashamed of your hair texture—if it offends someone, let it! If you want to weave your hair, that’s OK. Your hair is powerful, and so are you. Your hair is your armor, and with good hair you can conquer the world! “Emancipate” is my latest hair collection, and it’s about being set free, especially from legal, social or political restrictions.
LN: Quite frankly, I haven’t much interest in perpetuating Western beauty standards that have until recently dominated popular fashion photography. I just do not think it’s needed—more of the same? No thanks. Liberation comes with representation; giving young black people role models they can relate to and identify with is incredibly important.